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Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) by me (Justin).

Ciprofloxacin, its magic.

sunny 35 °C

After an easy hop from Bangkok with AirAsia we landed in one of the most oppressive military junta regimes in the world. Aung San Suu Kyi is now asking people to visit and this combined with the up coming elections was enough to morally justify our trip to ourselves. And we really wanted to go too.

Despite the short flight, the country immediately feels very different to the other ASEAN countries. There is little to no street lighting as we drive from the airport in the guesthouses relic of a bus. It seems most cars on the road are 20-year-old Toyotas. The men wear traditional longyi (sarongs) and the women have their faces painted in thanaka (pale yellow make up that acts as a sun block). The reality of stepping back into a third world country stuck in a strange time warp slowly unfolds. “This is Burma”, wrote Rudyard Kipling, “quite unlike any place you know about.”

Street scene in Yangon. Everything has a thick layer of mould.

Our 5th country Burma is the size of France with a population of ???, well nobody knows as the last census was done in 1983, perhaps about 70 million. It borders Thailand, Laos, China and India. Once the richest country in the region it could be again with vast natural gas reserves, which it already exports to India, China and Thailand.

A quick history lesson. The British gained control of Burma in three moves in 1824, 1852 and 1885 and then brought in many Indians as civil servants and encourage migration and trade with China leading to the melting pot that you now see in Burma. The British got rich on trading rice and teak. During the WWII the Japanese allied themselves with the Burmese Independent Army and drove the British out. However the Japanese treated the Burmese appallingly and soon the Burmese Army joined the Allies and fought back. General Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, who many Burmese feel is the reincarnation of the General) led the country out of the war and held elections following Independence in 1948.

Before he could take office he was assassinated along with most of his cabinet. The following decade saw conflict from many tribal groups against the then ruling Bamar majority. Then in 1962 General Ne Win lead a left wing military take over and set the country on the “Burmese way to socialism”. He nationalized everything and the country slowly ground to a halt completely stagnating in 1987. The people had had enough and revolted. In the ensuing crack down the government killed over 3000 people. Finally the monks had had enough too and turned their alms bowels upside down and insisted the general go. He finally did in July 1988 but remained behind the scenes of power.

The shaken government formed the very Orwellian-sounding SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), imposed martial law and promised to hold democratic elections in 1989. The country united behind the National League for Democracy lead by Aung San Suu Kyi. SLORC became increasingly nervous and placed Aung San under house arrest. Despite this and many other dirty tactics the NLD won 85% of the vote. SLORC refused to let the NLD into parliament and arrested the vast majority. Aung San remained under house arrest. Then things started to change a bit last year. I’ll leave the rest for Lynne in another blog.

How do you follow such tragedy? Well with a bowel complaint of course. After proudly proclaiming two days earlier that I hadn’t had even the slightest problems with my gut I came down with a nasty bout of Montezuma’s revenge. Sparing readers the full-blown details I will merely say that I didn’t really eat anything for two days. Truly the sign of a sick Woolley. However after 48 hours and no signs of improvement I went to the Cipro and within two doses I was feeling much better. Highly recommended. I may have to add it to trip advisor.

I add this brief interlude not only for its huge scientific interest (250mg bd) but also to say that our start to Burma wasn’t ideal. I was a bit under the weather and a bit grumpy. And, well, Lynne had to put up with that.

The first job of the day in Yangon was to sort out getting out of the place. We walked to the train station past a strange mixture of 60’s concrete apartment blocks, more modern 80’s things and massive colonial relics. When we got to the train station we stepped into the mad house. After asking at the first counter for an overnight birth to Mandalay for the next day we were directed to another counter. Here we met the same guy who told us the train we were after was fully booked and we couldn’t buy second class tickets as we were tourists. How about a day train rather than an overnight train? Yes, he had these. But we had to go to another window. Here the same guy asked for our passports, which I hadn’t brought with me. End game.

Another Street scene. An indian area of Yangon.

Next step was to get some local currency. Much is made of this in the books and websites. The banks, guesthouses and black market have now almost the same rates but the same rules apply at all. The dollars must be perfect. They must not have been folded or the slightest tear or smudge. They must be the newest “big head” dollars. They must not have a serial number beginning with RD. There are no ATM’s in Burma. The 5 star hotels will let you withdraw cash against your credit card at 15% commission. You could bring in $2000 dollars into Burma. Have folded them into your wallet and then find them worthless in Burma.

Bizzare. Why? No one is quite sure. One person told us that all the dollars are taken to Singapore by the government and placed in banks there and they don’t want to get there and then find them no good. But this story doesn’t quite make sense. Anyway with bated breath we handed over our $100 bills with slight pencils marks in the top corner (the rate is different for each sized note, $100 the best, $1 the worst). After careful inspection we were given the all clear, and directed to the next counter. With nearly a million Kyat in our pocket we trouped back to the hostel for a break from the heat.

Later in the afternoon we got a taxi to the greatest Paya in Burma: Shwedagon Paya. 2500 years old and rumored to encase eight of Budhha’s hairs the central zedi has been added to by successive kings and has grown to 98m tall and supposedly covered in 53 tons of gold leaf. The top of the spire is encrusted in 5000 diamonds and 2000 others stones. It was quite beautiful in the late afternoon sun.

Super Stupa

After this we went for a stroll around the center of town and down to the waterfront. The grand colonial buildings here, while not as grand as the Liver building, certainly reminded us of a dilapidated Liverpool. Buildings of a once great age when sea trade ruled the world. After a quick Chinese meal where I managed only a few mouthfuls we headed back to the hostel. Here we bumped into the Taiwanese group we had gone Kayaking with in Vang Vieng...which was nice apart from the fact I had to rush off to the toilet.

Old and New "colonial buildings".

The port at dusk and water taxis.

In the end we plumped for the bus to Mandalay. At least this meant the government weren’t getting any of the money (a constant battle, hostels have to have a license and give a percentage to the government). The next morning we were deposited at the bus station by a taxi, which felt like the bus village. As the only falang in sight we were of much interest. The Burmese love Lynne’s skin, and of course find my height hilarious. We hopped on board a brand new luxury Saab bus and pulled out into the best roads of our trip around SEA. The army government in their internal wisdom has built a new capital midway up the country after getting a rather rough astrological prediction a few years back.

Can you imagine basing your countries policy on superstition? Oh yeah, Blair took us to war because God told him to in a dream. Anyway they built a new motorway for themselves right up the spine of the country to connect their new capital. Most strange was how empty this giant road was. At points it was 3-5 lanes on each side but we only passed another car or bus every few minutes. 9 hours later and with our backs slowly crumpling to oblivion we arrive in Mandalay (a place Kipling never actually went to).

Posted by Justin Woolley 04:00 Archived in Myanmar

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